12:05pm Tuesday 22 October 2019

Study Uses Virtual Reality Therapy for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans with PTSD

According to a recent study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) rates now range between 20-30 percent for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A study led by PTSD researchers Barbara Rothbaum, PhD, ABPP, and Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD, and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is currently under way at Emory, testing the combination of the drug d-cycloserine (DCS) with virtual reality therapy to help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.


“PTSD is a serious condition that can become a chronic problem with devastating life-altering effects,” says Rothbaum, principal investigator, professor of psychiatry and director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University School of Medicine.

A large part of the problem PTSD patients have is fear of the memory itself, she says. “Although the memories will never really go away, we believe that the combination of the virtual reality exposure therapy and DCS will make it easier for patients to learn that they can handle their memories.”

Previous studies by Emory and Yerkes neuroscientist, Michael Davis, PhD, have shown that DCS enhances the extinction of fear.

Ressler, Rothbaum, and Davis completed the first human trial using DCS with Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for acrophobia, or fear of heights, in 2004. The encouraging outcome of that study and subsequent studies on social phobia and obsessive compulsive disorder inspired the researchers to reach out to victims of trauma with the same combination of DCS and virtual reality therapy.

Barbara Rothbaum
Barbara Rothbaum

“This particular combination of treatment techniques and medication arises from years of studying fear and, most importantly, what decreases fear,” says Rothbaum. “We are very excited about the prospects of this combined therapy.”

The first participant treated with the virtual Iraq exposure therapy showed a 56 percent decrease in PTSD scores following four therapy sessions.

“Persons with PTSD experience both psychological and physical effects that can worsen with time,” Ressler explains. “We believe this study is opening up some new doors that will help us get people back to their normal lives quickly, and with more robust and long-lasting results.”

For information about study participation, call (404) 712-8300 or email at tarp@emory.edu.

Davis is a co-investigator in the study and both Ressler and Davis are faculty members at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, and the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience.

Lead therapist in the study is Emory psychiatry faculty member Maryrose Gerardi, PhD.

A Virtual Iraq module was developed by Dr. Skip Rizzo and colleagues at the Institute for Creative Technologies and School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California.

Ressler and Davis are co-authors of a patent for the use of D-cycloserine for the specific enhancement of learning during psychotherapy, are co-founders of Therapade and Extinction Pharmaceuticals, and hold the patent rights for this indication. The terms of these arrangements have been reviewed and approved by Emory University in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.


The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include the Emory University School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Rollins School of Public Health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. Emory Healthcare includes: The Emory Clinic, Emory-Children’s Center, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, Wesley Woods Center, and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital.  The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.5 billion budget, 17,600 employees, 2,500 full-time and 1,500 affiliated faculty, 4,700 students and trainees, and a $5.7 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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